The March of Disruptive Technologies


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There have always been disruptive technologies; thousands of years ago, fire totally disrupted the path of mankind. I have heard it said that truly disruptive technologies are like earthquakes on the seismographs of history.

Some are so like old news to us living in the latter part of the first quarter of the 21st century but think what the world would be like if there had been no iron smelting, truly disruptive back in 1200 BCE, or gunpowder discovered by accident by a Chinese alchemist back in the 8th century CE. How about something as simple as using latex to create rubber a few hundred years ago?

There can be no argument regarding the disruption caused by the development of the use of moving electrons to generate power with credit going to Benjamin Franklin, followed by Edison, Volta and one of my favorite tech heroes, Nikola Tesla. Did you know that in 1891, Nikola Tesla invented a device that could transmit electricity through the air? It could power lightbulbs and electric motors wirelessly, but only at a distance of a few feet. It may have been short range and inefficient, but it was 1891 after all.

No one can dispute the disruption to civilization’s path caused by the invention and development of heavier-than-air flight started by the Wright brothers’ first 12-second manned flight over a century ago (Figure 3). And as time continued to march on, there were vacuum tubes and basic electronics (I=E/R) then nuclear fission, in the 1930s followed by the transistor and the microprocessor in the ‘50s and  ‘60s.

There can be little doubt that the rate and pace of disruptive technology has gone from an immeasurable crawl to a run and now to what is approaching supersonic speed.

Before we begin discussions on a few of the most disruptive technologies of the present day as well as what is right around the corner, for those of you who are as interested in disruptive tech and what it will do to change the look of civilization as we know it, let me recommend some light reading, you might like: Dan Brown’s newest novel, Origin[1]. If you read it, let me know what you think.

OK, enough background, let’s look at some of the most disruptive technology of the present and soon-to-be future. I have discussed virtual reality in recent articles, so except to state that it is clearly on the list, we are not going to cover it again here, but we will continue to watch and report. In addition, I feel that autonomous transportation is also in the top five, and I will be covering it in detail in the April issue, but one of the enablers for autonomous cars, trucks, etc., is another great disruptor, artificial intelligence. AI is kind of a catchall used to mean different things to different people.

It basically means computer systems that can learn by themselves. There are different phrases to describe it such as deep learning, machine learning, deep influence and so forth, but all talk about how a computer can learn. One of the leaders in AI technology and computer hardware, NVIDIA, defines machine learning as “the practice of using algorithms to parse data, learn from it, and then make a determination or prediction.” For example, the NVIDIA computer controlling an autonomous vehicle (Figure 4) gathers data from its myriad sensors and then parses the data and decides the direction to steer and avoid the obstacles in its path. It allows the vehicle to safely arrive at its destination in spite of the thousands of other changes and moving vehicles along the way. An excellent video published by NVIDIA describes all the different things that AI actually is. You may wish to take a few minutes and watch it[2].

Let’s talk economics. It is estimated that in just over a decade AI will contribute over $15 trillion to the global economy. It is expected to add 14% to the North American GDP by 2030. By 2027, just under 10 years from now, the AI-driven autonomous vehicle market is expected to be worth $127 billion. As stated earlier, much more on autonomous driving next month.

To read the full version of this article which appeared in the March 2018 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.

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